Assassins fate, p.60
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       Assassin's Fate, p.60

         Part #3 of The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy series by Robin Hobb

  Silver Secrets

  I miss the wolf as a drowning man misses air in his lungs. For years after his death, I would have sworn I still felt him within me. Nighteyes. His wry way of telling me I was an idiot, his endless appetite for the immediate pleasures of the world, his solid sense that if only we fully lived in the present, all the tomorrows would take care of themselves.

  With this enlarged household at Withywoods, I feel I cannot relax for a moment. Everything is a plan that has gone amiss and must be corrected.

  Torn page from journal of Tom Badgerlock, Holder of Withywoods

  Spark stepped to the railing. She opened her hand, and Lant’s curling locks were blown away in the ever-present ocean breeze. He stood up from the barrel, and rubbed both his hands over his shorn head. His eyes were red-rimmed. He stepped away from the barrel and I sat down on it.

  ‘How short?’ she asked me.

  ‘To the scalp,’ I replied hoarsely.

  Lant twitched and turned back to me. ‘He wasn’t your father!’ he objected.

  I could have argued that with him. But it seemed pointless and I was tired of pain. If my shearing my hair for mourning as if Chade were my father was painful to Lant, I need not do it. Chade would never know and it would not change the depth of my loss. ‘The flat of your hand,’ I said.

  I felt her set her hand on top of my head. Her fingers closed to hold my hair upright and she began snipping. My hair was not nearly as long as Lant’s had been. Spark piled the clippings into Per’s hands. There was a lot more grey in it than I’d realized there would be.

  Not my father. I’d never met my father, but Burrich had near-shaved my head for mourning when Chivalry had died. Yet when Burrich had died, I’d not cut my hair at all. I listened to her scissors snipping and thought about that. I’d been on Aslevjal Island, and the news of his death had come to me in a Skill-message, just as tidings of Chade’s death had. Why hadn’t I cut my hair? No scissors. No time. The gesture had seemed too small. I’d still been a bit angry with him for wedding Molly. So many reasons and no reason at all. Perhaps it was not wanting it to be real. I didn’t know any more. Who had that young man been who had thought himself so old and worldly-wise? He was a stranger to me now.

  ‘It’s done,’ Spark said in a husky voice and I realized it had been some time since I’d heard the snick of the blades.

  ‘That it is,’ I said and stood up slowly. Both Spark and Per had taken a hand’s breadth off, instead of the traditional lock. The Fool had given me a lock of his pale hair. I think he knew that I wouldn’t wish Lady Amber to be the one to hand it to me. I’d released it to the wind and now Per delivered mine to the same breeze. I stood at the railing and watched the steady wind carry my hair away. Scattered into the open air as Chade’s memories would disperse. I’d known him longer than anyone at Buckkeep. When I died, a part of Chade’s heritage would die with me.

  I heard a step on the deck and turned to find Althea regarding me with a mystified look. I’d tried to explain how I could know of the death of someone in Buckkeep, but I think she privately believed I’d had a very vivid dream. I was grateful that she’d allowed us privacy for this small ceremony. And now that time was over and perhaps she had orders for a deckhand.

  Her glance flickered over my shorn head and then she pointed out over the water. ‘There, on the horizon. Beneath the overcast. Do you see that? We think those are the outer islands, with Clerres on the largest one, and beyond the islands, a mainland. So, Paragon tells us.’

  I followed her pointing finger, and saw only clouds. I accepted what she told me. ‘How long until we reach there?’

  ‘It depends on the wind and currents. Paragon says less than two days. From what he recalls, there is a good deep-water harbour at one end of the island but he wishes to take us directly to the Clerres harbour. He says he has been there before; that Igrot had dealings with the Servants. Of what sort, he cannot say, but shortly after they visited Clerres, he took Igrot to Others’ Island, to have his fortune told.’ She fell silent. Perhaps we both wondered what those creatures had foretold for him. ‘The wind is up and building; we’re making excellent time. If it continues, we could be there late this evening, or early tomorrow.’

  ‘This evening.’ I echoed her words. I teetered on the edge of a void. I thought of all I didn’t know and could not anticipate. I had studied the crude maps the Fool had helped me make. But knowing the general layout of the Servants’ stronghold did not tell me if Bee had already arrived or if she was still on a ship. If she were there, was she held as a prisoner, or housed in the cottages with the other young Whites?

  Neither did I know how soon Tintaglia might arrive to take her vengeance. I looked at the distant shadow on the horizon and wondered if she had already finished with them. Would we sail into the harbour of a dragon-destroyed city? And what if Bee had already arrived in Clerres? No. I refused to consider that possibility. I had to believe I still had a chance of saving her.

  Knowing Bee was alive had thrown all my plans into disarray. I could poison neither well nor food, lest it make its way to Bee. I could not go in swinging an axe or spreading toxic potions on doorknobs and tabletops. Until I had safely regained my daughter, I could attempt no violence against the Servants. Entering and searching a well-guarded castle to rescue a small girl was a very different task from gaining access and killing as many people as I could before I died. In all my long career, this would be the first time that my primary goal was to save a life rather than take one.

  ‘Paragon wants to anchor well out in the harbour, where the water is deepest. Even so, we must be watchful lest an ebbing tide leaves him aground.’

  Brashen drifted up to join her. He leaned back on the railing and said nothing as she spoke. ‘We will behave as we always have in a new port. We will go ashore, and visit merchants to see what trade items we might purchase. We’ve not a lot of coin but it’s adequate for a short ruse. We may even buy some goods, on this, our last trading run with Paragon.’ Her gaze went distant. ‘Perhaps our last time ever to visit a new port.’

  I caught yet another glimpse of all we had taken from them and felt shame again. My fate was a runaway horse, dragging destruction like a broken cart through so many lives. I tried to think of something to say. Lant and the others had drawn closer and were listening.

  Althea remained silent, staring at the clouds on the horizon. Brashen cleared his throat. ‘Before sunset, we’ll return to Paragon. We will keep our crew at the ready, for it may be that you will stir great trouble and we will have to depart swiftly.’

  I spoke what we all knew to be true. ‘You owe us nothing. This was a bargain struck between your ship and Amber. I do not expect you to risk your lives or crew for us.’ Dread filled my heart as I offered what was right. ‘We will all disembark when we reach Clerres. Whatever trouble we bring down, we will bring down only upon ourselves. Should anyone ask, we will say that we paid for our passage here, and that we hardly know you.’ I steeled myself. ‘If you judge you must flee before we return, well, then you must.’ And I would be in my worst possible situation. Saddled with all of my companions, and I hoped, Bee. With no swift means of escape.

  Brashen scowled. ‘We do not intend to maroon you. One of the ship’s boats will remain at the dock, crewed by Queen Etta’s bravos. Should you have to flee for your lives, they will be there, waiting for you. We hope they can swiftly convey you to Paragon and we can flee together.’

  A twisted smile crawled across Althea’s face. ‘Plan for the worst and hope for the best. Given that we know so little of what you intend, it is difficult for us to make specific plans.’

  ‘It’s more than what I expected,’ I said quietly. ‘Thank you.’

  She looked me up and down. ‘You do what I think any parent would do for a child. I wish that rescuing her had not meant the end of Paragon as ship. Even so, I wish you luck. We will all need a sizeable measure of it to survive this.’

  Brashen spoke. ‘Per and Spark
are young for what you say you will do. Must you take them?’

  ‘I would leave them behind if I could.’ Per took a step forward and Spark made a strangled sound. I lifted a hand and my voice. ‘But we may need them.’

  ‘Then you have a plan?’ Althea pressed.

  ‘Of sorts.’ It was pathetic and I knew it. ‘We will disguise ourselves as folk seeking a fortune-telling from the Servants. Once we have crossed the causeway and entered the castle, we will attempt to search for Bee. Amber believes she knows where they will be holding her. If necessary, we will conceal ourselves within the stronghold and emerge by night to search for her.’

  ‘And if you find her?’ Brashen asked.

  ‘Somehow, we will rescue her. And bring her back to this ship.’

  ‘And then?’

  ‘Bee’s safety is my first concern. I would hope that we would immediately leave Clerres.’ That part of the plan belonged solely to me. Vengeance could wait until Bee was far beyond the reach of her captors. I had dwelt long on that decision, and had not told Amber of it. I suspected she would agree, but I refused to take the chance that she would not. I glanced at her. Her lips were folded tight and her arms crossed. I reminded them all, ‘Tintaglia intends to destroy Clerres. Perhaps we will be content with letting the dragons take our vengeance for us.’

  If they had not already.

  ‘How will you get Bee away from them?’ Brashen asked.

  I had to shrug. ‘I hope I will know that when the time comes.’

  Althea’s face betrayed her shock. ‘You’ve come all this way and that is your strategy? It seems very … vague.’

  ‘It is.’

  Her smile was strained. ‘It’s not really a plan at all.’

  Brashen put his hand over hers where it rested on Paragon’s railing. ‘This we can offer you,’ he said. ‘And it’s as thin a plan as your own. The Divvytown sailors know how to fight.’ Althea started to object, but he held up a finger. ‘As Althea has said, we’ll have them wait for you at the dock, and they’ll be well armed. If your luck goes sour, get to them, and have them bring you back to the ship. Even if Althea and I are not aboard, Clef will order the ship to pull anchor and set sail.’

  Lant’s mouth was hanging ajar. I shook my head, ‘And leave you in the hornets’ nest? I can’t ask that!’

  ‘Of course you can’t. And that’s why we’re offering it.’ A strange glint, almost merry, had come into his eyes. ‘It wouldn’t be the first time we have had to hide, or fight our way out of something. If it comes to that, save your little girl, and we’ll look after ourselves.’ He put his arm around her and said with a touch of pride, ‘We’re rather good at that.’

  ‘I don’t like that plan,’ Althea announced. ‘But I admit that I dislike it less than the idea that you might be fleeing with a child and have nowhere to go.’ She lifted her hand to cover Brashen’s. ‘If my ship and my crew can get clear, I’ll go along with it. Don’t worry about us.’

  Those inadequate words. ‘Thank you.’

  Amber spoke. ‘So. Our day is upon us. Time to rehearse. The sea is calm, the wind favourable. Can you spare all of us from deck duties for a time? I think we need to retire to my cabin, assess our supplies and wardrobe and practise our roles.’

  Brashen glanced around the deck and gave a curt nod. ‘You’re free to go.’ He tucked Althea’s hand into his arm and led her away from us. Her gait matched the motion of her ship perfectly. I tried to imagine her living on land, walking through a market with a basket on her arm. I could not.

  ‘Roles?’ Per asked.

  A gleam had come into Spark’s eyes. ‘Yes!’

  ‘I’m not sure that I need to rehearse,’ I said to Amber.

  ‘Rehearse?’ Per asked again.

  ‘Come with me,’ Amber insisted. ‘All will be made clear.’

  When we had crowded into the cabin, the Fool shed his role as Amber as easily as he dropped the skirts that covered his trousered legs. He kicked them aside. ‘I will not be Amber when we disembark.’ He looked almost merry as he stooped to drag garments from under the lower bunk. His fingers danced over fabrics and lace, sorting them as he went. I clenched my teeth for a moment. I knew I would not win but I made a final effort.

  ‘I do not think you should disembark at all!’ I objected. ‘You are known in Clerres. And if they capture you or even if someone sees you and you stir their guard to wariness, you have only complicated my task. No.’

  He simpered in my direction. ‘As if it were your decision. Be quiet for a time and hear my plan, for I have refined it!’ He was fairly quivering with excitement. ‘You, Tom Badgerlock, are come to Clerres to find out if your lovely daughter Sparkle should wed Holder Cavala. That’s you, Lant. Your serving lad Per has accompanied you. I will be the ageing granny of Holder Cavala, along to be sure that my grandson is not bilked of his promised bride.’

  He waited. Per’s eyes were as big as plates. Spark was nodding and smiling. Lant was incredulous. We had discussed that the Fool must be heavily disguised if he went ashore, but this was a whole new level of theatre. A simple plan to present ourselves and pay to cross to the castle was suddenly a grand play. I shook my head in slow denial of the inevitable. ‘Are you sure this is necessary? That we all have roles and names and an errand?’

  He smiled as if he had not heard me. ‘No objections? Excellent. I will be doddering along with you, well veiled against the sun. I will carry the butterfly cloak and a few other well-concealed items. We will follow the stream of pilgrims to the merchant square at the end of the gated crossing. There Fitz will pay to have his fortune told. No matter how you are advised, you will express displeasure at how general it is, and offer a substantial amount of coin to have a lingstra determine if the match is well made. I promise you that they will take your coin and give us crossing tokens. We will cross to the stronghold and go in with the tide of fortune-seekers.’ He took a breath. ‘This will be the difficult part. We must insist that we are taken to one of the libraries of scrolls for the reading. That is a rare and expensive privilege. I doubt we have the coin for it, but we can barter this for that privilege.’ He held up the bracelet. The flame-jewels woke in the dim cabin; they truly looked as if they burned. ‘We will take the fire-brick as well, but reserve it in case we need a large bribe. It’s a practical item. Almost anyone would covet it.’

  ‘But we promised …’ Per began.

  ‘In dire need, we could part with them. Saving Bee is a dire need,’ the Fool said.

  I nodded. Not that l liked his plan. I simply had no other.

  ‘In the library, we must find ways to disperse. Perhaps I can insist I must relieve myself, and Lant and Spark will accompany me as I dodder along. When we don’t return, you and Per will go to seek us. Instead, you will find hiding-places. You may have to separate …’

  ‘I won’t send the boy off alone,’ I objected.

  ‘I can do it,’ Per insisted, but I saw secret relief in his eyes.

  ‘As you will,’ the Fool said with a sigh. ‘So much will depend on opportunity. But by the time the second low tide of the day comes, and the first wave of visitors is required to depart so that the second wave may come, all of us must be hidden or we will be forced to depart. And go you must, without objection, leaving behind any who manage to remain hidden.’

  It had been a terrible plan the first time he proposed it. Details had not improved it.

  ‘How will we find one another after dark when the castle is abed. And how do we know the castle will be abed?’

  ‘Do you not recall what we planned before? We meet at the washing courts: it is deserted at night. That is our rendezvous point. I trust you have all studied our map?’

  ‘We have,’ Spark agreed. No one reminded the Fool that he had told us this before.

  ‘And then?’ Per asked.

  ‘As we agreed. I will search the lower cells first. If she is there, we must free her as swiftly as possible.’

  Per looked as if he might b
e sick. He sat with shoulders bowed as if expecting a blow. The Fool gave him a sad smile. I pushed aside images of Bee tortured in the dark. I had to think only of the rescue.

  ‘Once we have regained her, we must escape with her. That may be our biggest challenge. When I search the lower cells, we will look for some evidence of how my rescuers took me out. The entry to the tunnel under the causeway must be there. If we find it, and we have Bee, two of us will take her that way immediately, leaving one of us to meet you in the washing courts and guide you out as well.’

  He sat back and folded his long-fingered hands in his lap. ‘And there it is. My plan, refined.’

  He took a breath. ‘And we must take with us Chade’s firepots and some of Fitz’s poisons. Once we have Bee and are certain of our escape, Fitz can place them as he thinks best.’

  ‘I can help with that,’ Per said quietly and added softly, ‘I have my own vengeance to claim. My father. My grandfather. I recall too well how their emissaries served the men who stood before the doors of Withywoods. I recall how Revel fell.’

  A small silence followed his words. Pride and shame warred in me. What had I done to my good-hearted, honest young stableboy?

  The Fool spoke. ‘Once we have Bee outside of Castle Clerres, that party will not wait for anyone else. She will immediately be taken to the docks and the ship’s boat. There we will wait for the others to join us. Unless …’ He paused and then spoke reluctantly, ‘Unless Bee is badly hurt. Then we must get her quickly to the ship and tend to her injuries.’ He drew a breath and spoke quickly. ‘The rest of us will have to fare as well as we can. But today we prepare. We dress the part; we conceal our weapons.’

  ‘I agree,’ I said quietly.

  ‘So let us begin,’ Spark announced. She was obviously more informed than the rest of us, for she began to pull out sets of garments from under the bunk.

  She set a stack beside the Fool. ‘Here is your granny’s bonnet on top. I’ve finished putting on the lace to shield your old face from the sun. Try it on!’ Next to the Fool’s disguise she placed the butterfly cloak, folded and rolled into a tight packet. Wordlessly, she put out a maidservant’s shift and a headscarf. For Bee, I knew. I twitched when she spoke to me. ‘Fitz, please set out
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